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No-till provides many benefits, including building soil structure, increasing water holding capacity and infiltration, increasing worm counts, in addition to reducing soil erosion.

Cover crops are a great tool to use in conjunction with  no-till to enhance soil health benefits.

Soil compaction 

Soil compaction can be an issue in any field, but sometimes compaction issues are more prevalent in no-till fields. Compaction problems in no-till fields often occur during the transitional years of no-till when the soil structure is being built but can easily be damaged. Compaction can occur when machinery is used in the field when the soil is not fit or dry enough, often these areas are concentrated on the end rows where multiple machinery passes are made. Compaction can also be present in no-till fields from the use of previous tillage practices, commonly referred to as “old plow layers”. In conventional tillage systems, tillage is consistently used over time to alleviate, in the short term, issues with compaction. In a no-till system, we have to use other methods to fix compaction issues. Cover crops can be used to alleviate soil compaction by using living roots to break up compaction layers. Deep-rooted cover crops such as turnips, radishes, and cereal rye can help break up old plow layers and alleviate other compaction areas across the field.

Enhanced soil microbiology 

No-till protects the soil and allows soil microbes to thrive in their habitat. Repeated tillage disturbs the soil and destroys the microbes habitat, causing them to put their energy into repairing and rebuilding themselves after every act of tillage. No-till preserves the soil microbes habitat, but to fully reap the benefits of soil microbes we need to stimulate them by keeping them “fed”. This is where the addition of cover crops can help. Cover crops provide a living root to the soil and act as a food source for soil microbes. The addition of cover crops stimulates the soil biology and helps soil microbes produce substances like glomalin, which act as “biological glues” to help hold soil particles together and improve soil structure. The creation of these “biological glues”, through the use of cover crops, is what helps improve soil structure faster than just using no-till by itself. It’s important to remember, certain crop species and cover crops species have different associations with different microbes in the soil. Try to keep a diverse amount of crops and cover crops in the soil to keep the microbiology consistently stimulated throughout the year.

Soil structure

Soil structure is created by using practices such as no-till and cover crops. Soil structure can be built faster by using multiple soil health practices at one time. Think of it visually. It’s like a never ending circle with improved soil structure as the end goal. If you practice no-till along with cover crops, you gain soil biology, reduce compaction, and therefore, obtain greater soil structure. Improved soil structure then results in better water infiltration and greater water holding capacity. When used together, cover crops can make the transition to no-till easier than using no-till by itself.

Visit our resource library to learn more about cover crops.

Maddy Rabenhorst
Maddy Rabenhorst
Maddy Rabenhorst is a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership covering South Dakota and North Dakota.